The stealthy cougar is called by more names than any other mammal: mountain lion, puma, panther, catamount or simply lion. Fossil records show its ancestors lived in North America more than 6 million years ago alongside saber-toothed cats, American cave lions, jaguars and cheetahs. Today cougars range from Alaska and northern Canada to the tip of South America, making humans the only large mammals more widely distributed throughout the Western Hemisphere.
Recent studies indicate that North America's original cougar population was wiped out during the mass Pleistocene extinctions 10,000 years ago and that the continent was later re-colonized by a small group of cougars from South America. While as many as 32 cougar subspecies were once recognized throughout its range, genetic testing of mitochondrial DNA in the 1990s showed most were too similar to be distinct on a molecular level. Today six subspecies are recognized, five of which solely inhabit Latin America.
The cougar retained much of its original distribution throughout the New World until the 1900s, when bounty hunting and human expansion brought it to near extinction. Despised by farmers and ranchers suffering heavy livestock losses, it was extirpated from nearly all of the Midwest and eastern United States by the 1920s, except for a small endangered population in Florida. In the 1960s, regulations were placed on cougar hunting in all Western states (except Texas) and Canadian provinces to help populations recover. Today North American cougars inhabit mainly the remote areas of the western United States, western Canada and Mexico, though recent sightings indicate it may be re-colonizing parts of its former territory east of the Mississippi and expanding into urban areas out West in response to continued human expansion and exploding deer populations. Today the cougar population is reported to be higher than it has been since the 1800s as game managers struggle to keep a healthy deer-to-cat balance.
Though it is the second-largest cat in the American continents (after the jaguar), it is more closely related to smaller felines. It has the genus name Felis rather than the common name Panthera shared by other large cats. Unlike the African lion or tiger, its larynx lacks the vocal cord needed to roar and instead makes a high-pitched scream. It is the largest cat that can purr. Its genus and species name mean "cat of one color," reflecting its near single-colored coat, which ranges from tan to dark brown depending on the region, with a lighter-colored belly and throat and a black-bracketed nose.
Adult males can measure 8 to 9 feet from nose to tail tip and weigh 125 to more than 200 pounds. Females average 6 to 7 feet and weigh 80 to 100 pounds. Cougars stand 25 to 30 inches at the shoulder and have tails up to 3 feet long, which are used like a rudder when turning sharply to catch prey.
Cougars rely on cover, stealth, eyesight and speed as they hunt for food. Unlike the omnivorous grizzly or black bear, they live almost exclusively on animals they kill themselves. Primarily nocturnal, they stalk and ambush prey, running it down or pouncing from vantage points.
Thriving in almost any remote terrain with good cover, cougars can establish home ranges of 50 square miles or more, depending on the season and abundance of prey. They scratch tree trunks and use ground scrapes, urine and feces to mark territory and attract mates. Males often scrape together and urinate on piles of leaves and grasses and will not share territories with other males. Cougars select ranges from sea level to elevations of 11,000 feet in California and 15,000 feet in Ecuador.
Cougars are almost always on the move and do not use dens, except in the case of females with cubs. They make daybeds in caves, shallow nooks on cliff faces or rock outcrops. In less-mountainous areas, they lay in thickets and under large roots or fallen trees.
Males reach sexual maturity at age 3, females at 21/2. Like most large predators, cougars are not prolific breeders. They breed any time of the year, though spring is the peak season. Three months later, females give birth usually to two or three spotted, blind, 1-pound cubs, which nurse up to three months, eat meat after one month and are fully weaned at six weeks. Their spots fade and they begin hunting. Within 18 months, they leave to establish their own territories.
Cougars make "soft" tracks that are almost invisible on firm terrain or crusted snow as claws remain retracted to preserve sharpness. Tails are carried in a U-shape while walking in snow, so the lowermost portion may leave drag marks between prints. With teeth designed for seizing and slicing hide and bone, droppings often contain bone fragments and hair.
Deer make up as much as 70 percent of their diet, though they prey on anything they can catch. In the case of a large kill, they eat their fill then cover the carcass to return later and continue feeding.
A keystone of American popular culture, the cougar symbolizes the values of individualism, competition and athletic skill-"Cougar," "Panther" and "Puma" are used to name cars, sports teams and athletic clothing. It is portrayed as everything from a dangerous predator to an "overgrown house cat" to even a human caricature. Who can forget the Pink Panther, a cartoon character that has been walking upright, sporting bow ties and using nonverbal wit to outsmart foes for 47 years?